He shouldn’t have been so relieved at the reprieve. “I should have sent my clerk. If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have delegated the task. He’s better at this sort of thing.” He started to stand.
Her hand was surprisingly strong, driving him back to his knees. For one second, it seemed precisely right that he should be brought low before her. The rain fell around them. It dampened her hair into separate strings; in the uneven light, they seemed bright red against the dark color of her dress. He knelt before her, as if he were some kind of bedraggled knight, and the umbrella lying on the ground before him her sword.
A fanciful thought, rather belied by reality. The rain fell on his face, belled on his eyelashes. She seemed almost mystical, outlined by the water that stung his eyes. Before her, rain was just rain, washing everything away.
She reached into her own pocket and drew out a white scrap. And then she reached forward to wipe the rain from his forehead.
He snatched the fabric from her hand. “I can’t abide being fussed over.”
“Lord Justice,” she said, “I think you should go home and rest.”
“Thank you, but no. I’ve no need.”
“What was that back there? It wasn’t fish, and it wasn’t the scent.”
He stared mutely at her, and then held out her handkerchief in return.
She sighed and reached out to help him up. He was shaky enough that he took her arm, and he leaned on it. He let her open the umbrella.
“Is there anyone here to accompany you home?”
He glanced back at the gaol. Briefly, he considered lying. Only briefly. He shook his head.
“Will there be someone waiting for your arrival?”
His charwoman would be long gone; no other servants would be around today. No need for her to know that. “Yes,” he said.
“My dog.” He sighed and looked to the sky. “Don’t look at me like that. He’s very good company.”
“You’re trying to figure out how to rid yourself of me, aren’t you?”
“Damn.” The word had no rancor. “On this short an acquaintance, you should not know me so well.”
She put her head to one side and considered him. So help him, if she spouted one word about what he needed, he was going to walk away and never speak to her again. He didn’t want her bloody pity.
Maybe she saw the warning in his eyes, because she simply shrugged. “I’m the last one seen in your company, and it would be dreadfully inconvenient if I were to fall under suspicion. I just want to make sure that nobody kills you on your way home.” Only the sparkle in her eyes suggested she was teasing.
That was the moment when he realized he was in trouble. She didn’t insist on plying him with concern. In fact, she’d believed him when he said he didn’t like fuss. Her hair was dripping from the rain; her gown was spattered.
He couldn’t remember why he’d thought she wasn’t pretty before. His elder brother would have had something brilliantly charming to say at the moment. Smite could think of nothing.
“Besides,” she said, “I don’t want to say farewell.”
She couldn’t mean what he’d heard. If her cheeks were pink, it was probably from the cold. But it was so much an echo of his own impulse that he set his hand over hers and squeezed her fingers.
“Then don’t say it.”
SMITE DIDN’T TELL LIES well, not even with his body. He walked back through the darkening streets, his steps this time more measured. She didn’t say anything, thank God, on the return trip. He made his way to the small home where he lived near the edge of town.
He didn’t have anything for her but silence.
He wasn’t good with this sort of thing—with the back-and-forth dance between man and woman. He wasn’t even sure if they were dancing, or if she was merely being polite.
“Thank you,” he said when they reached his doorstep.
“That sounds suspiciously as if it’s intended as a dismissal.” She wrinkled her nose. “Do you really think I’m going to leave before I make sure that you eat?”
“Do I look so dire as to need all that attention?”
She studied him frankly. He could feel his hands trembling, and he folded his arms to hide the weakness.
“Yes,” she said baldly. “You look awful.”
Perhaps that simple honesty was why he didn’t send her away. There was a little bit of fuss there, yes, but at least she hadn’t called him a poor lamb. And maybe…maybe right now he wanted the company.
He shook his head and unlocked the door. A ball of gray-and-white fur launched itself into the rain, jumping and leaping and bludgeoning him with his tail. For a few minutes, amidst the wriggling and the barking, there was no conversation to be had. But eventually, Ghost managed to calm himself, and they entered.
Smite excused himself immediately to wash. It took too long to rid himself of the feeling of the prison. The oppressive stink had vanished, but still he scrubbed hard. He applied tooth powder and brushed out his mouth, and when that didn’t seem strong enough, he used harsh soap. He scrubbed until he’d stripped away the layers of his weakness.
Only when his hands had grown steady did he return to the main room.
Miss Darling was examining the books on his shelves. She was… God, there were no words for her. She warmed up his dark room.
Maybe the effect came from the fire she’d started from the banked coals, or the lamps she’d lit. Maybe it was the absent wave she gave him when she heard his footsteps—or maybe, that curl of heat came when her expression froze in a half-smile as she took him in.
He’d stripped to his bare skin to wash, and had only donned his shirt again. The points of his collar were drooping, and the edges of his hair were damp. Her eyes drifted down and then up, and for the first time, she turned away, a faint blush touching her cheeks.
Ah. Maybe he’d let her come home with him for another reason entirely.
“Well,” she said. “You should eat.”
He shook his head, dispelling the prurient bent of his thoughts. He could smell the faint scent of roasted chicken. On the hob behind her, under a cover, lay the dinner his charwoman had left for him. He wasn’t hungry. Not for that, at any rate. Still, he crossed the room and took a plate. Removing the cover, he heaped food onto it—a pile of new potatoes, peas, and a roasted breast of chicken. Ghost padded silently behind him, looking up in obvious entreaty.
Smite ignored him and crossed to the table. He set the plate down and then picked up a fork.
Miss Darling simply crossed her arms and gave him a look—the kind of look that said get on with it.
She shouldn’t have been beautiful—she was too forward, too freckled, too thin. Still… Oh, to hell with it all. He wasn’t hungry, anyway. He reached out and took her hand, drawing her to him. She drifted near, until she was close enough to kiss. Clo
se enough for him to see the green of her eyes, widening as he turned her hand over, palm up.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to do since the first moment I saw you,” he said. It came out close to a whisper.
“Oh?” He could feel the puff of breath from that word against his nose.
“Don’t even think of arguing.”
She shook her head. Her lips opened, an impossible, inviting fraction.
He set the fork in the palm of her hand and closed his fingers tightly around hers. “I want you to eat,” he said.
“I’ve seen your wrists, Miss Darling. And your dinners. When I tell you to eat, damn it, you are going to do so. Now have a seat.”
He turned and pulled a trunk from the wall, and shoved it up against the other side of the table to form a makeshift second seat. She did sit down, and as he went to pile a second plate high with more meat, she picked up a forkful of chicken.
When he returned, she glanced at his plate. “You should have peas, too.”
“Hmm,” was all he said in reply.
She had impeccable table manners for a woman who lived in the slums. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering about her. There was her accent, changing to match whoever was around her. And then there was Antigone. She was a conundrum, really.
He ripped a piece of chicken from the bone. She watched him curiously; her eyes narrowed as he held it out to his dog, who took it nimbly.
“Ghost doesn’t like peas,” he explained.
She didn’t ask why a duke’s brother had no servants, no long, splendid table set with silver. He didn’t ask her where she’d acquired her manners. It would have broken the spell that seemed to enfold them.
If this was magic, magic was tiring. It drained him until he was bone-weary, until all that was left was a deep, empty ache, and a desire to belong to someone else, if only for a few moments.
He spoke as nonchalantly as he dared. “I suppose you’re wondering about what happened. Back there. At the gaol.”
She gave him a measured look and took a mouthful of potatoes. She chewed carefully and then shrugged. “I suppose I am.”